When degrees lose their worth


A student of law who was keen to start practising in a court decided to do a Master’s course instead. Her decision was not based on second thoughts about joining the bar; she wants to do that after completing her Master’s degree. She decided to postpone legal practice as she felt that the LLB degree had not given her a sufficient grip on the basics. This, she hopes, she will gain from the Master’s course. Another factor guided her decision to pursue a higher degree. If she does not succeed in legal practice, she thought, a higher degree would give her an edge in the competitive exams held for jobs in the field of law.

An educational bazaar

Her decision reminds me of the classic book, The Diploma Disease, written by British economist Ronald Dore and first published in 1976. In 2001, a special volume was published to celebrate the continued relevance of Dore’s book 25 years later. It is a rare book in that it offers a structural explanation for a widely prevalent phenomenon, namely the urge to gather more and more degrees. Instead of focusing on the behavioural aspect, as most scholars do, Dore links the phenomenon with the devaluation of qualifications. Dore noticed that the desire to accumulate more and more degrees and diplomas was gaining rapid popularity in many countries. He selected three of them in order to examine the phenomenon: Sri Lanka, South Korea and Japan. Although India was not a part of his sample, the insights Dore presented are equally pertinent to India, where their applicability is growing rapidly. Certificates, diplomas and degrees are in great demand in what is literally an educational bazaar.

Dev Lahiri had chosen this title for his book narrating his experience as a renowned teacher and principal: The Great Indian School Bazaar. The title is just as relevant to higher education now, where a vast and varied market of qualifications has grown since the mid-1990s. Its growth feeds on itself, in the sense that the greater the variety of qualifications on offer, the faster grows the demand for them. A young candidate enrolled in one course wants to enrol in other courses. Permission for dual degree admission has further boosted the urge.

The driving force of this urge is located both within and outside the system of education. Internally, the system encourages students to gather additional qualifications by defining course content and its aims narrowly. Known as specialisation, this phenomenon is a response to the mystification of skills as distinct from knowledge. The phrase ‘job ready’ captures the attraction of sliver thin courses that cut the scope of learning so fine that one certificate can only lead the student to search for the next.

The greater driving force is externally located, i.e. in the economy. Economic growth has not resulted in expansion of satisfying employment in many countries. In India, the scarcity of worthwhile jobs is quite severe in many regions, even in cities, not to mention villages. The fear of joblessness fuels the urge to gain new eligibilities. Candidates for jobs often select the relevant domain of their multiple certifications in order to represent themselves as being suitable for a job. The volatility of the job market also implies that no job can last for long; hence the anxiety to become eligible for as many types of jobs as possible.

Delinking did not happen

In the 1980s, it was believed that delinking degrees from jobs might be a good idea to reduce the pressure on institutions of higher learning. The argument was that if jobs were delinked from formal qualification, it would discourage the young from accumulating certificates and degrees. The idea was reluctantly pursued due to the suspicion that self-educated job seekers might not have reliable qualities. In any case, the pressure to enrol in one course or another remained high. Students knew they could not be choosy, and their parents were also anxious to push their wards to stay enrolled rather than waste their time. Correspondence courses — now called ‘open’ learning — proliferated. Later, the Internet also enabled the self-learning market. It has, to some extent, boosted self-employment, but the lure of formal jobs has not diminished. In fact, it has maintained remarkably high growth in the coaching market. Competitive exams now attract countless youth to indulge in what Craig Jeffrey, on the basis of his studies in India, has aptly described as the “politics of waiting”.

Crisis of standards

Dore’s thesis that devaluation of degrees is strongly associated with lowering of standards has proved correct. When a course does not give you what you expected to learn from it, you go for a higher level of the same course. The spiral is extended systemically when institutions face financial starvation, leading to chronic vacancies, dwindled support services and poor annual intake in libraries. Public institutions of higher education have suffered sustained hollowing out over the past three decades. Their inability to maintain standards while being forced to accommodate an increased number of students is reflected in the mass exodus to foreign systems and expensive private institutions. Students from deprived strata can’t avail of these options. Just when they had begun to knock at the doors of higher education, its offerings entered into descent mode.

There are, of course, many other ways to explain the fall in standards of teaching and also in the expected diligence of students. Digital technology has made its own contribution to the noticeable changes in student behaviour. On a weekly consultation broadcast of the highly regarded Indira Gandhi National Open University, I heard the following statement one day: “Please read the programme guide carefully. Reading is a good activity for you.” That a university has to emphasise the value of reading is a sufficient indicator of the silent crisis that has engulfed the system of education. A plethora of reforms introduced despite the weakening of routines due to the pandemic may not succeed in resolving the basic issues and tendencies that Dore had underlined nearly half a century ago. There is a considerable gap between the discourse of reform and the reality of our higher education system. Unwillingness to acknowledge the persistence of older problems has become a source of further systemic enervation. The nature and choice of reforms can certainly be improved by looking at the residues of past difficulties and at the COVID-19 impact.

The driving force of the urge to collect degrees is located both in the education system and in the economy